Netflix’s House of Cards: What this Smart New Political Drama Could Mean for the Future of TV

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Is Netflix trying to become the new HBO?  With the release of their first major attempt at original programming, and more new titles on the way, the DVD rental and streaming service could become a formidable force in the television landscape.

This past Friday Netflix debuted House of Cards, its new political drama from Beau Willimon (The Ides of March).  It is based on the novel by Michael Dobbs and the BBC miniseries of the same name.  The show boasts some big talent such as Oscar Winner Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and Kate Mara.  Not to mention, the darkly brilliant David Fincher (Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) directed the first two episodes and serves as an executive producer.  Still, the most groundbreaking thing about this new show isn’t its cast, direction, or even its plot.  It’s the format in which it’s being delivered.

Instead of a typical week-to-week schedule, Netflix has unveiled all 13 episodes of the show’s first season at once.  So technically, if you were so inclined, you could watch the entire season in a matter of hours.  This format is nothing new.  Netflix subscribers have long had the ability to watch entire seasons, and even entire series runs, of old and currently airing shows.  This is the first time, however, that this setup has been executed on a new show that isn’t available on any other networks.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been quoted saying that the service is primarily used for “binge viewing,” or watching a marathon of TV episodes in one sitting.  This may be the trend amongst subscribers, but is it really the way to go with new shows that are premiering?  Sure, it makes watching a show more convenient when you don’t have to stick to a weekly schedule, but isn’t that what Hulu and DVRs are for? Have we really become such an instant-gratification prone society that we can’t bare the thought of waiting a week to find out what happens next?  Or is this new layout offer an exciting new way to think about the future of television, and what TV shows are capable of?

There’s been much debate about this here at The Filtered Lens, and my colleague Matt stands very opposed to the whole idea.  He is of the belief that, with this new format, we lose the episodic suspense and anticipation that comes from waiting for each new episode.  He has a point.  There would be no need for heated water cooler conversations, because there would be no sense of wonder.  If you wanted to know what was going to happen next, you could just watch and find out.

My colleague Meg, on the other hand, is all for the marathon episode format.  She loves when a show draws her in so much that she can’t help but want to watch several episodes at once.  She feels it’s a smart move for Netflix to make, and she’s probably right.  With the rise in popularity of Netflix and other streaming services like OnDemand and HuluPlus, traditional TV viewing seems to be on its way out.

As for me, I’m somewhere in the middle.  While I agree that there is something exciting about waiting to see what happens next, I must say that when I was catching up on episodes of Breaking Bad, I immensely enjoyed watching several of them in a row.  Additionally, there’s a strengthened sense of continuity between episodes when you watch them one after the other.   All in all, it really just comes down to preference.

So, is House of Cards a game changer?  It’s too soon to say, but it has already garnered a good amount of praise from critics and viewers alike.  I haven’t had a chance to watch all 13 episodes of the season yet, but what I have seen is pretty fantastic.  Kevin Spacey is devilishly energetic as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, and Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood proves to be a worthy spouse and partner in crime.   With scenic shots of Washington DC, and a script full of wonderfully devious dialogue, this show could give the networks a run for their money.  No wonder Netflix outbid HBO for it.

Netflix has plans to release a slew of original programming in the coming years, including a comedy series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan and a horror series from producer Eli Roth.  What’s really going to turn the tables, though, is when the new season of Arrested Development premieres later this year.  Using the same format, along with a built-in cultish fanbase, could seriously change television for better or worse.

By Mike Papirmeister

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